[NOTE: This article has been updated on May 15th, 2014. The original version was published on May 12th and has since been revised to include a further contribution by composer Alexina Louie.]
As part of our ongoing “most influential” series, we asked some of Toronto’s modern-day masters of composition to choose three composers who have influenced them the most. These results were compared and tallied to create a top ten list of the most influential composers between them.
The results varied wildly, from Metallica to Stravinsky, and included composers spanning different musical periods, nationalities, and genres. The selections were ranked according to subjective ratings, and factored in duplicate choices. Contributors were restricted to those whom have spent a significant amount of their careers in Toronto, and those in middle or late career trajectories.
Who was he?
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (17 June [O.S. 5 June] 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian born composer, pianist and conductor, acknowledged for his stylistic diversity. He is best known for his three ballets: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). This last of which was hugely influential to other composers for its novel use of rhythm and musical design.
Chan Ka Nin:
“He is the master of exciting music. His strong musical personality overcomes the methods of compositions. His understanding of instrumentation showed me that each player in a composition has a meaningful role.”
Who is he?
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, (b. 15 May 1948) is an English musician, composer, record producer, singer, and visual artist, known as one of the principal innovators of ambient music. Eno has also been immensely influential in pioneering ambient and generative music, as well as innovating production techniques and emphasizing “theory over practice”.
“Alternate ways of approaching musics [sic], and blurring their lines between styles and genres, popular and academic. [He] made conceptual music popular.”
8th place: Georg Friedrich Haas
Who is he?
Georg Friedrich Haas is an Austrian composer (b. 16 August 1953) best known for his spectral music. He is guided by the idea that music is able “to articulate a human being’s emotions and states of the soul in such a way that other human beings can embrace these emotions and states of the soul as their own.”
“Haas has lately been creating unbelievably beautiful pieces based almost entirely on changing colours and unusual tunings. This has changed the way I’ve been thinking about colour in the last year or so. Check him out!”
Who was he?
Karlheinz Stockhausen (22 August 1928 – 5 December 2007) was a German composer, widely acknowledged as one of the most important composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He is known for his groundbreaking work in electronic and aleatoric music, and spatialization.
“Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ability (through the ‘50s and ‘60s) to produce a succession of groundbreaking ideas for composition and sound-producing excited me at least as much as listening to the music. I bought the records, mostly on DGG, and read everything I could find about how they were made. I thought it sensible that the composer’s liner notes for the Kontarsky discs of piano pieces included the serial numbers of the pianos, tuning schedule, and even what Kontarsky ate and drank each day. By the ‘70s newer works seemed, to me, meticulously silly, but the electronic Kontakte and the plunderphonic Hymnen continue to impress me as two of my favourite pieces ever. I never met him, but we had a brief correspondence about a decade ago— in the context of a Christmas card he wrote ‘please invent completely your music; don’t touch other works which are the messages of other souls.’ I’ve chosen to ignore this advice and to continue to follow the example of his appropriative masterpieces of the past.”
Who was he?
Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French composer known for his innovative works centered on exploring timbre and rhythm and early electronic music. He challenged traditional conceptions of noise and believed that noise was “any sound one doesn’t like.” He is also known as the “Father of Electronic Music”.
“When I first heard Varèse’s music, it was like a sonic kick in the pants. I recoiled from the crude gestures, the extremes of register and timbres, the aggressive dissonances and noises – yet the music was so urgent and alive, I couldn’t ignore it. Varèse channels music as diverse as Stravinsky, Debussy, and mediaeval polyphony, which he forges into an intensely personal, expressive, and forward-looking language.”
5th place: Béla Bartók
Who was he?
Béla Viktor János Bartók (March 25, 1881 – September 26, 1945) was both a Hungarian composer and pianist. Considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century, he is regarded as one of Hungary’s greatest composers. He was also noted for his study of folk music and is one of the founders of ethnomusicology.
“Probably the single most important influence on my work. Hearing the First Piano Concerto for the first time was a revelation. Classical precision with contemporary resources.”
4th place: Claude Debussy
Who was he?
Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was one of the most prominent figures associated with French impressionist music. His use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism was a major influence on subsequent composers.
His music is noted for its sensory content and early use of atonality. The French literary style of Symbolism was a major influence on Debussy.
“…because of his sonic instinct. He taps on a profound sense of a primordial human heritage that runs contrary to anything we know about our origins, and yet never fails to stir in me long repressed species memories like no other composer before or since.”
“… So sensuous, so delicate yet powerful, so profound. The sound world is so beautiful and transparent. I learned a lot about transparency and complexity of sound from [him]. I would point out the Debussy Preludes, Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer…”
3rd place: György Ligeti
Who was he?
György Sándor Ligeti (28 May 1923 – 12 June 2006) was a composer of contemporary classical music. He is regarded as one of the most important and groundbreaking composers of the second half of the 20th century.
“Aside from [Ligeti’s Piano Études]’ sheer virtuosity, there are several things about them that have influenced me as a composer:
Each work showcases new pianistic techniques that push the boundaries of what had been previously known for the instrument. Ligeti did not simply raise the bar in this area – he rocketed it into a new stratosphere. This colossal achievement continues to inspire me as I look to them as models from which to learn.
With each work, the tactile concepts are treated with equal importance as the aural ones. This was when I began to embrace an important principle: How the gestures feel as tactile ideas must also fit with how they sound. In other words, the strength of a composition rests on how well it fits in the musician’s hands and how well the muscular exertions complement the expression of the composer’s voice.
These works embody the influence of musical styles and traditions of other nations and civilizations. More specifically, many of these movements were inspired directly from the polyrhythmic languages of African cultures. Thus, the embracement of other musical styles and aesthetics while finding one’s own voice within them has become an influential principle in my recent years as a composer. In fact, I would say I have grown quite passionate about indigenous music and the musical traditions of other civilizations (Eastern, Southern, Northern, Middle Eastern, Pacific, etc). Thanks to Ligeti’s bold accomplishment in recreating African polyrhythms in pianistic form, I have now grown to embrace the musical complexities of other traditions that lie beyond the Western hemisphere.”
“I was really amazed when I discovered his concept of micropolyphony – textures could be so densely packed yet have sonic interest (you can hear and experience the multi-layering without it sounding like a stolid block of sound). Of the many pieces that stuck me as being exceptional, I would choose Atmospheres, String Quartet #2, [and] the Piano Etudes.”
Who was he?
Ludwig van Beethoven (17 December 1770 – 26 March 1827) was a German composer and pianist widely considered the composer who bridged the Classical and Romantic eras. His best-known works include symphonies, piano concertos, piano sonatas, string quartets and choral works (including the celebrated Missa solemnis).
“…because of his non-conformity. He was not concerned with social (structural) norms and he pursued musical semantics in pure isolation, reinventing from scratch even things that he and others already knew.”
“Beethoven is still the poster-child of the romanticized genius-composer. Unlike composers before him, he struggles mightily against established norms. He was a brave and relentless innovator. Mozart had perfect craft, but he did not fight and innovate like Beethoven. As my teacher Gary Kulesha often says, Mozart was the last great composer who did not struggle. Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms, are all great. But Beethoven is the most influential.”
“To me, the border between the act of composing and the process of self-psychoanalysis becomes more blurred with each successive opus until they merge as one and the same in his later years. This incredible journey he underwent continues to inspire me as I pave my own path as a composer.”
Who was he?
German born composer Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March [O.S. 21 March] 1685 – 28 July 1750) is known as the central figure of the Baroque period. He is best known for his mastery of counterpoint, harmony and motivic development, as well as his intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty. A hugely prolific composer, Bach’s best known compositions include the Brandenburg concertos, the Mass in B minor, The Well-Tempered Clavier, two Passions, keyboard works, and more than 300 cantatas.
“For his profound understanding of the balance between individual assertiveness and social harmony (counterpoint / harmony).”
“A colleague once said: ‘There are pieces that can only be created from moments of spontaneity and then there are those that require time and effort’ (referring to the rigorous workings out of technical procedures). Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier represents the best of both these worlds – 48 works expressing all 24 major/minor keys in the form of preludes and fugues. Learning these works has instilled in me the understanding of the two musical experiences and their importance in all forms of music making (right-brain versus left-brain experiences). In addition, they played a pivotal role to the development of my performing and listening abilities in regards to polyphonic textures. Having such skills proved to be critical assets to my creative process. As well, these works taught me the many basic compositional techniques that form the foundation of a composer’s craft: motivic development, counterpoint, harmony, melody, etc.”
Chan Ka Nin:
“Each of his compositions, from his chorale to his Passion, is perfect, incredible music with imaginative use of a well-conceived language. He humbles me and showed me that perfection and imperfection are all good.”
[Addendum: It should be noted that this survey is only representative of the selected contributors, and is in no way intended as being representative of all composers.]